Method in madness

Method in madness

Installation Art

Method in madness

Anish Kapoor’s current exhibition at the Royal Academy in London welcomes one with ‘Tall Tree & the Eye’, a towering structure in its forecourt. This soaring assemblage of silver balls, resembling greatly magnified Christmas tree decorations, belie their weight of stainless steel, as if yearning to ascend to the sun, which they adoringly reflect in miniature.

Most of the exhibits are earlier works, including some hallmark Kapoor: Knolls in vivid coloured pigment. Some were reminiscent of images like the mythical Mount Meru in Indian miniatures, or tantric shapes in Tibetan thankas.

Then one is drawn to ‘Yellow’, an amazing turmeric orb, covering almost the whole wall of the next room. This mesmerising sun, though not personified as Helios, Surya or Ra, is nonetheless an object worthy of worship. However, the seemingly flat surface seen side-on, reveals a large central dimple. If Kapoor’s reflective surfaces throw your image — albeit distorted — back at you, his coloured matte concavities are the antithesis, they absorb you: Entering those honeyed gradations, I imagine, would be like a bee rolling around in a pollen sac.  

Kapoor continues his earlier examination of the truth of reflections in ‘Non-Objects’, large Euclidean shapes with immaculately finished surfaces. While some sculpture encourages touching, feeling the material under one’s hands so that touch confirms the eye’s input, these are very definitely noli me tangeré, because their effect relies on their highly finished surfaces. Depriving one of tactile endorsement, the visual has to orient one to planes and concaves, but Kapoor’s works also kindle introjection in the viewer, so that outside objects are transposed into the subject in subliminal ways. 

A mirror mercilessly throws back what it receives, without judgement, comment or memory. But these steel surfaces upend, wrench and disorient you with the sudden absence of familiar reality. More than just fairground mirror distortions, they do not just mock the familiar image, they take you beyond, to multiple temporalities and spatial certainties, to another perception of actuality.

His most recent cement sculptures, resembling mounds of petrified grey sausages, upheld or collapsed in various arrangements, are crammed into one gallery. Avoiding any evidence of  “the artist’s hand” in the creative process, these structures were drawn on a computer and then formed, like cement extrusions from a pasta machine.

‘Hive’, honeycomb ochre panels stretched over steel frameworks, dwarf you, its towering planes reminiscent of Serra. But at one end is an aperture, inviting one into the tunnel of the unknown. ‘Slug’ is a lurid purple yoni, finished to a metallic gloss. Resembling an exotic flower, it grows out of rough bark-like fibreglass coils.

‘Hive’ and ‘Slug’ reiterate Kapoor’s fascination with caves: Neanderthal man’s state of semi-sensory deprivation in caves forced him to use some supra-sense to discover his surroundings, within and without. Kapoor’s concave sculptures prompt the same response in our crania, our “caverns measureless to man”. However, instead of sensory deprivation, his images flood that dark dome, so that we move beyond habitual perception, to grope undiscovered brain areas. Hyper-perceptions result in vague intimations of cosmological import, pinholes allowing glimpses of the “is-ness” of the beyond.

The great draws of the exhibition are ‘Shooting into the Corner’ and the stunning ‘Svayambh’. The former is more than a melodramatic demonstration of violent action painting. A cannon is fired every 20 minutes and a crowd gathers round expectantly.

As the canister of red wax is thrust into the breech, the clamp closed and the pressure switched on, there is a hush, similar to that which precedes a ritual of great significance. However, a 10-year-old boy waited for it with irreverent glee, wondering why this gaggle of grown ups, mobile cameras and videos at the ready, wanted to preserve the moment: After all, it’s what he and his mates do at their paint-ball games, fire each other with globs of paint! But even he was awed when, with a loud explosion, the 20 pound ball of wax hurled itself into the far corner at 50mph, spattering the walls and decorative stucco ceiling of the hallowed Royal Academy.

‘Svyambh’ is 30 tonnes of red wax in a 10 meter long block that inches along rails through five galleries. ‘Self generation’ is that feeling of coming into being, as it emerges through the doorway, taking the shape of its birth exit, with gouts of wax adhering to its surface like foetal matter. Having reached the end of the track, it reverses and goes back, repeating the process all day. Viewers are hypnotised by this imperceptible progress, waiting almost half an hour for it to emerge fully into a room.

Its relentless journey resonates with the Hindu creation myths: Brahma, God of sva, drawing creation into himself, its dissolution and regeneration, repeated in cycles. Though ‘Svayambh’ and the cannon firing have nothing in common but their material — the same coloured and textured wax — I could not help linking the two: As if the gooey masses slumped in the corner had somehow gathered themselves, coalescing into that huge slab that then glided, advancing and retreating inexorably.

One is also made intensely aware of the material’s historical association with sculpture: The wax of ciré perdu bronze casting rediscovered and established as a material in its own right.

Kapoor has no “message”, saying that it is up to the viewer to complete the circle he has half drawn. For me, the exhibition reverberated not only with deeper significances, but was also an exhilarating artistic experience.